(photo courtesy of the Waterford Museum)
When considering museums that tell the story of immigration, institutions like The Lower East Side Tenement Museum often come to mind. Often overlooked are smaller, local institutions that seek to tell the immigrant stories of their community and tie them to the greater national narrative. These exhibits can facilitate collaboration between a museum and its community, engage visitors, initiate dialogue, and give local matters national significance. The Waterford Historical Museum and Cultural Center’s online exhibition “Making Waterford Our Home” is one such exhibit.
“Making Waterford Our Home” is the end result of a series of exhibits “focused on the history of the three ethnic groups that seventy-five percent of Waterfordians claimed ancestry to in the 2000 Federal Census: Italian, Franco-American, and Irish.(1)” The concept for the exhibitions started with a question: What can we learn about the Italian Benefit Society? From this question the institution began research that lead to the creation of a new exhibit featuring one of the three groups each year in-house; the conclusion of the series was an online exhibit comparing the immigrant stories.
To accomplish these goals, the institution engaged its community. Staff conducted oral histories, gathered items for loan from community members to help tell their stories, and used objects in the museum’s collection to tell the story that was unfolding. With each new story came new questions, and staff researched to corroborate the information they received. The dialogue with the community was key to the success. The community provided the content, and the museum curated the story. Exhibitions featured multiple media – pictures, objects, interactives, audio clips, and oral histories. While locally popular, the exhibitions had a limited audience of whoever could reach the museum. The creation of the website grants greater access to those who would not have access to this information.
Creating locally-oriented exhibitions are not without challenges. Handling a participant’s version of a story can be a difficult matter for any oral historian. Institutions have to walk a fine line when presenting stories that may be inaccurate or embellished. When telling the story, the Waterford Museum presents all the information available, using photographs and audio clips to augment the stories and when possible provides primary source material to the viewer. The website lists different categories on the right-hand side, making it easy to navigate to sections of interest. The virtual vignettes can be viewed in any order without confusion. This is beneficial because, similar to a physical exhibition, oftentimes the visitor does not move through the site in a linear fashion, instead gravitating towards topics of interest. Each section begins with an introductory story about the topic. When possible, links to the specific ethnic groups are featured at the bottom of each section.
The site is guided by the principle that started the series: ask a question. Visitors can explore the site’s individual sections, ask questions, and find links to resources so the visitor can conduct their own research on their family’s history. There are also comment sections at the bottom of several pages where the visitors can interact; sadly, visitors as of this post have not utilized this section.
This site is content rich, but has room for expansion. There are plans to add other ethnicities to the site that are presenty under construction. The comment section could be used to encourage dialogue, both of the exhibit material and of visitor’s personal stories. Institution-lead discussion would add an element of co-curation with the audience. This online exhibit is an excellent example of how a small institution can attempt to engage audiences outside of their normal visitors. “Making Waterford Our Home” tells a story that many small communities can relate to. It takes a larger national theme and brings it to a local level. The format is easy to update and maintain while allowing for input from visitors. An institution is only limited by how much time they can put into a site like this and the amount of authority it wants to give the visitor. Allowing for dialogue keeps the immigrant story going long after their stories have been told.